Wildfires last summer followed by a particularly harsh winter has driven herds of elk, deer, antelope, and other ungulates closer to urban and suburban areas in southern Idaho. This has resulted in several of the animals making a meal out of a particularly poisonous plant and then promptly dying. The plant is a yew, an ornamental shrub or tree that is commonly used in residential and commercial landscapes. Seven elk died after eating Japanese yew in the Boise Foothills. Fifty pronghorn antelope died after eating the same plant species in the small city of Payette. Eight more elk were found dead in North Fork and Challis, poisoned by yew; eight others were found dead outside of Idaho Falls having suffered a similar fate. And this is just a sampling. Needless to say, such tragedies have spawned a greater awareness of this and other deadly poisonous plants – plants that were purposely planted in our yards, thought benign, but lying in wait to kill.
Yews, plants in the genus Taxus, are in the family Taxaceae, a coniferous family that consists of around 5-7 genera and up to 30 species (sources vary). Taxus is one of the largest genera in the family with between 9 and 11 species. The genus occurs across three continents, with at least four species naturally occurring in North America (T. canadensis, T. brevifolia, T. globosa, and T. floridana). The species most commonly grown as ornamentals include Japanese yew (T. cuspidata), English yew (T. baccata), and a hybrid of the two (T. x media).
Generally speaking, yews are evergreen shrubs or trees with inch long, dark green needles that come to a sharp point. Branches are alternately arranged and the bark is scaly and reddish-brown. As trees they can reach heights of more than 60 feet, but in a garden setting the plants are usually hedged into more managable-sized shrubs. Taxus species are dioecious, which means that individuals are either male or female. The females produce fleshy, round, cup-shaped fruits that are pink, red, or green. This structure is called an aril and is produced by the swelling of the stem around a single seed. All parts of the plant are poisonous, with only one exception – the aril. This is problematic because the bright-colored aril can appear quite appetizing. And it is edible; however, when the seed is consumed along with it, the plant’s poison makes its way into the body.
Yew poisoning is unfun. Death can occur in a matter of a few hours, depending on the parts of the plant and amount consumed. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms lists these symptoms: “nausea, dry throat, severe vomiting, diarrhea, rash, pallor, drowsiness, abdominal pain, dizziness, trembling, stiffness, fever, and sometimes allergy symptoms.” Symptoms of severe poisoning include, “acute abdominal pain, irregular heartbeat, dilated pupils, collapse, coma, and convulsions, followed by a slow pulse and weak breathing.” The cause of death is respiratory and heart failure.
Yews contain a number of toxic compounds, including volatile oils and a cyanogenic glycoside. The compound responsible for yew’s high toxicity is taxine, a potent cardiotoxin and, as it turns out, an effective drug against certain types of cancer. Very small doses of this poison can be deadly. One or two yew seeds can kill a small child, and a handful or two of the needles can kill an animal, depending on its size. Even dried branches and leaves remain toxic, so wreaths made with yew should be disposed of in a landfill rather than tossed into a yard or field where domestic animals and livestock can find them. Yew consumption should be promptly addressed by visiting an emergency room or calling the Poison Control Center.
Yew’s deadly reputation is not something to take lightly. They are a popular ornamental because of their attractive fruits and evergreen foliage, their tolerance of shade, and their low maintenance requirements, but homeowners with children, pets, or proximity to horses, cows, or wild animals should consider removing them. If a decision is made to keep them, the shrubs can be wrapped in burlap during the winter to prevent hungry animals from coming in for a bite, particularly on properties that are adjacent to natural areas.
Do not experiment with unfamiliar plants or take a plant’s power lightly. Wear gloves in the garden; think twice before swallowing a berry on a trail or throwing a root into the stew pot. If you have small children, teach them not to put plants in their mouths. If you have pets, remove the temptation of poisonous plants from their environment. The nursery industry is woefully lax about identifying poisonous plants; let your garden center know that you’d like to see sensible, accurate labeling of plants that could harm you. Use reliable sources to identify poisonous, medicinal, and edible plants.
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